Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bald Eagle Documentary 101: The Footage

Oh, Dear God, what have I gotten myself into? That’s the first thing I ask myself whenever I invest my time into a large project. And a feature-length documentary is a monumental project, especially for one person. It can take years to complete.

I am now producing my third documentary, “Who’s Protecting Our National Bird?” which highlights the loss of habitat and disturbance of a pair of bald eagles and their offspring in Manassas, Virginia. Two 40,000 square-foot warehouses displaced the natural habitat directly in front of their nest with an asphalt lot edging up to five feet from the base of the nesting tree. It was a colossal failure by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the City of Manassas, and, to some extent, the developers. I will also cover similar situations and threats to our National Bird around the country.

So, when you make a documentary, you have to recognize its importance. Why is it important? Who’s to blame? Will the documentary enact positive change for future occurrences? All the reasons to think about before taking on such a large project.

To date, I have filmed over 10,000 usable video clips and over 15,000 usable stills—“usable” meaning I’ve removed the bad takes. So I have a lot of material to work with. Sometimes you don’t know when enough is enough, so you keep on shooting. For these particular pair of birds, I have to keep on filming while producing, because at any moment, the situation can change.

I have some totally lovely footage. Breathtaking. Things that no one has ever seen before. And that’s what I call the “cream of the crop.” Footage that must somehow be incorporated into the film. That could be a heron flying in slow-motion to a moving statement from an interview subject. I know right when I’m filming it: this has to be included. Sometimes it makes me shiver when it happens live. Keep the camera steady, keep the camera steady.

Shooting for the Edit
And so for this first blog post on the documentary, I want to talk about “Shooting for the Edit.” It’s when you choose shots along the way that you know you need to incorporate in your story. Watching a documentary about bald eagles would get pretty boring if all you saw was the nest for 90 minutes. So I’ve had to film shots of the town, the people, interviews, nature, and the consequences of overdevelopment. It can be something as simple as an open utility box with wires in disarray, a graded field, or, sadly, an animal carcass on the side of the road. It’s a baseball game, a county fair, a Christmas parade, and a high school football game. All these things make up the BIG picture. They give the story perspective and life.

Sometimes I don’t know what I will use in the future. I am certain that I have more than enough footage of these eagles to make a good film. Coming, going, mating, mating, mating, mating, feeding, preening, flying, swooping…it’s all there. Still, how can you not resist to film more of these majestic birds?

Getting to Know your Footage
Once you’ve decided that it’s time to move along with your documentary, you have to take a look at everything you have. That means weeks and weeks of looking at every video clip and every still. It means logging the best shots. It means creating a timeline. It means one of the worst things of all: reliving all the drama again.

On that, I wish people knew the toll on one’s heart it takes to re-experience all the strife you went through. And this is not a one-time thing. As you edit and assess the quality of each edit, you re-experience it again and again. Like, for months and years. You have to keep it as real as possible, but keep your own emotions in check. I once wrote in a book a segment on a man giving up a beloved dog he had found. I got up from my desk and paced back and forth in my kitchen and bawled like a baby for 15 minutes. I know that if it doesn’t affect me in the editing room, it probably won’t affect anyone else.

And so, over the next month or so, I will scroll through months and months of shots to create a timeline. From that timeline I will create an outline. I already know the opening segment; it’s already been written. It will be created from footage that I didn’t even know I had. It’s very moving, considering what happens after.

I hope that I have the full support of my cohorts and the people who have followed along with this particular story. I still need donations so I can travel to remote locations across the U.S. for interview segments that are important. You can do so at the GoFundMe Page.

Please share and follow along this journey in filmmaking and advocacy at Bald Eagle Preservation Group and


Friday, April 7, 2017

Eagle Lovers Disturbing Manassas Eagles

Nine months ago the many eagle lovers in Manassas, Virginia witnessed the removal of the habitat directly in front of our only known pair of bald eagles within city limits. It was devastating to watch. What was once a tranquil field of tall grasses and pine trees has now been replaced by two 40,000-square-foot warehouses and a parking lot. The asphalt rides up to just five feet from the base of the nesting tree. It's a travesty how U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the City of Manassas allowed this to happen.

But the eagles have stayed. They have laid eggs. And now they are raising two healthy eaglets. Yet, ironically, what may scare them away, or worse yet, cause them physical harm, are the eagle lovers themselves.
Trespassers disturbing bald eagles on private property.

In the past, when there was a spacious field in front of the nest, people kept their distance, for the most part.  It was a natural buffer, and people knew that if they got too close, the birds would fly off. Now it seems to be a round-the-clock drive-through ride and snap. People see a paved lot and somehow feel that they have the right to drive onto private property to get as close to the eagles as they want. There are no barriers or gates to prevent gawkers from coming within feet of the tree. There are only Private Property/No Trespassing signs at the entrances, which most seem to ignore.

I've had the opportunity to witness and speak to these many people who seem to think that they have the right to get up close and personal with these eagles. I actually had a local school teacher tell me that "she pays taxes," and that she has every right to view the eagles that close no matter what signs are put up. Wrong. So very wrong. It's private property.

Another onlooker told me that she always ignores No Trespassing signs because she "has no intention of doing any damage to the property." Wrong again. And shockingly so.

We get it. You want a great photo of the eagles to share on Facebook or Instagram. But is it worth the price that these eagles have to pay? At this point, our eagles have no choice but to try to raise this year's young in a hostile environment. They already have to deal with large trucks, noise, and commotion from the warehouse tenants. Why add more to that? In fact, the majority of the traffic disturbing these eagles on a daily basis is the eagle lovers themselves.

And I've seen their effects on the birds. I've documented it on video. The parents will often stop feeding their young when too many people are below. If one is resting on a nearby branch, it will fly back into the Cannon Branch Fort Park to get out of the line of sight. They do take notice, and this may ultimately cause them to abandon their nest in time.

NEC opens parking lot to eagle lovers. Park in the right lot.
There are several great alternative ways to view the eagles. NEC is allowing eagle lovers to park in their lot directly across the street. You can see the nest fine from that location, and the birds will often fly overhead. One has even taken to bathing and drinking from a little puddle of water that fills up just feet away in the adjacent field. You can get some terrific shots from that location. And, you won't be disturbing the birds. Plus, you can meet and chat with the many other eagle lovers in the area.

Please give the eagles a rest. Obey the Private Property signs. Know, also, that video surveillance cameras have now been installed to track disturbances. It's a misdemeanor to be caught on Private Property. Don't take the risk. Stay back. Stay off the property. And please be considerate and protective stewards of our National Bird.

Eagle lovers taking photos from across the street so they don't disturb the birds.